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NHTSA, DOT Announce New Support, Guidelines for Self-Driving Vehicles

According to advocates and evangelists of the technology, the promise of self-driving vehicles is a world where accidents are a thing of the past. Of course, a dramatic decrease in accident and injury rates is only one promise commonly cited by proponents of the technology. Other potential benefits of broadly adopting autonomous vehicle technology could include less traffic, reduced levels of emissions, and more free time for the occupants of the self-driving car or truck. Some seem to believe that the self-driving car coupled with electronic vehicle technologies that eliminate the need for the familiar drive-train vehicle configuration will result in a radical design of new vehicles. Have you been injured in a car accident? Contact a Philadelphia car accident lawyer of The Reiff Law Firm today.

However, most if not all of these benefits are still theoretical. Self-driving cars will pose several obstacles for manufacturers. While it is certainly possible that self-driving cars can deliver on many of these promises, there is also the potential for a botched roll-out that results in significant injuries. Other potential risks of introducing autonomous vehicles include hacking and actions by malicious individuals and entities.

In any case, the official federal policy for automated cars and trucks is one of the most important steps and material steps the government has taken to expedite the development and deployment of these vehicles. This action  builds on NHTSA’s March 2013  Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles. For more information on the approach discussed in this document, please consult our previous blog post discussing some of the challenges that must be overcome before autonomous vehicles become mainstream.

U.S. DOT Announces Federal Policy for Automated Vehicles

In a step that U.S Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx characterized as “unprecedented,” The U.S. DOT announced a federal automated vehicle policy. Secretary Foxx stated, “Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken.” The secretary’s view appears to be supported by the evidence in light of remarks by NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind where he stated that, ““Ninety-four percent of crashes on U.S. roadways are caused by a human choice or error.”

As such, NHTSA, DOT, FMCSA and other relevant agencies have worked to develop a Federal Automated Vehicle Policy. The policy is generally focused on providing safety assurance and facilitating innovation in the automotive industry.

How Will this Policy Change How Vehicles Are Regulated?

U.S. Department of Transportation characterizes the newly announced Federal Automated Vehicle Policy as a break with tradition that expands federal regulatory oversight beyond the current reactionary model that, generally, cannot act prospectively and can only address problems after a serious auto defect or another problem is discovered. This approach is premised on four main areas of focus. These areas are:

  • Model state policy – This aspect of the approach considers the differences between federal and state-based safety policies and regulations. This aspect of the policy suggests certain policy areas for the states to consider in the pursuit of a consistent national safety framework.
  • A 15-point safety assessment for vehicle manufacturers –  The federal framework also contains a Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles for manufacturers, developers and other organizations. This component of the regulatory framework provides auto manufacturers with guidelines to increase the likelihood of an autonomous vehicle with a safe design.
  • Revamp current regulatory tools – NHTSA has indicated that it will interpret current rules more flexibility to provide for flexibility in autonomous vehicle designs. NHTSA has also indicated that it would be open to providing limited exemptions to further spur the development of alternative vehicle designs.
  • Introduce new regulatory tools – This plan also considers introducing new regulatory tools and statutory authorities to further encourage the development of novel life-saving and injury mitigation technologies.

Essentially, the approach set forth by DOT seeks to break with the past where federal agencies seemed to defer to the companies they were supposed to regulate. This policy has been characterized as a 21st-century approach to vehicle safety.

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One Day Earlier, Uber’s Self-Driving Taxis Began Picking up Passengers in Pittsburgh

For those wondering why federal regulators have seized upon the current moment to update the approach to autonomous vehicles, consider recent developments. Tesla has already introduced vehicles with an “auto-pilot” feature that provides a taste of the automated future. Other manufacturers have already introduced assistive driving technologies like lane assist and emergency braking.

However, most notably, Uber launched a pilot of its autonomous taxi service in Pittsburgh just days earlier. The autonomous car service offered by Uber in Pittsburgh will still have a human operator present in the vehicle in the testing phase. The human operator is supposed to keep his or her hands on the wheel if a problem occurs, but will not otherwise control the taxi.

In a certain sense, these events illustrate that the future will arrive regardless of whether the federal government and vehicle safety regime are ready. Steps taken today will guide and affect the safety of motorists today and for years into the future.

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